4 ways to keep your heart healthy
By Lucy Maher
If you’re like most Americans, you visit your primary care physician once a year, get your teeth cleaned and examined every six months, and see any number of specialists when needed.
What you may be neglecting? Your heart health. Each year in the United States, about 610,000 people die of heart disease; that’s one in four deaths. Coronary heart disease, or CHD, is the most common type of heart disease, and kills over 370,000 people annually. That’s in addition to the 735,000 Americans who have a heart attack each year.
“Cardiovascular disease is the no. 1 cause of death for women and men in this country, more than all cancers combined,” says Dr. Jennifer Haythe, MD, director of cardio-obstetrics and internist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, and co-director of the Women’s Center for Cardiovascular Health at Columbia. “Taking care of your heart should be your biggest health priority.”
The good news: It’s relatively simple to do so if you follow a few simple strategies.
1. Eat Healthy Foods
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting the consumption of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, red meat, sugary breakfast foods and desserts, and sugar-sweetened beverages. This means focusing on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes like beans, and vegetable oils like canola, olive, and sunflower.
“The Mediterranean Diet is the best way to keep your heart healthy,” Dr. Haythe says. “Rich in fish, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and olive oil instead of butter, low in red meat—the Mediterranean Diet is healthy for all ages.”
For those who consume alcohol, the AHA suggests doing so in moderation. If you’re a woman, that’s no more than one drink a day; that number increases to two for men.
2. Keep Active
Maintaining your body weight is also key in keeping your heart in good shape. But while a healthy diet is about 80% of the battle, a regular exercise routine is an essential complement. The AHA recommends no less than 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week. A combination of the two works as well.
“The heart is a muscle and regular exercise keeps your heart strong and healthy,” Dr. Haythe advises. “Exercise helps to lower your resting heart, blood pressure, and relieves stress.”
What about those who can’t get to the gym before work or have an irregular schedule? Break up those minutes into shorter bursts of activity. That means everything from parking a half mile from the train station and walking to and from, or strolling for 20 minutes during your lunch break.
3. Quit Smoking (Or Don’t Start)
If the warning labels aren’t enough to deter you, there’s this: Cigarette smoking causes one in five deaths in the U.S., according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Association, and damages nearly every organ in the body.
When it comes to the heart, the chemicals breathed in through tobacco smoke contaminate the blood, which then damage the heart and blood vessels, leading to cardiovascular disease. Cigarette smoke causes plaque to build up in the arteries, resulting in atherosclerosis. Smoking is also linked to peripheral artery disease and peripheral vascular disease, in which narrowed blood vessels causes insufficient blood flow to arms, legs, hands, and feet.
4. Control Cholesterol and Blood Pressure
Too much cholesterol in your blood results in a build-up in the walls of your arteries, which become narrowed, reducing or blocking blood flow to the heart. This is a condition called atherosclerosis, which is a form of heart disease. When not enough blood or oxygen are reaching the heart, chest pain may result. If the blood supply is completely blocked, a heart attack or stroke occurs.
What’s more, “when an unstable plaque ruptures, a clot forms to stabilize but inadvertently this can block a major artery and lead to damage to your brain or heart,” Dr. Haythe says.
High blood pressure can also damage the heart. This happens when LDL, or so-called bad cholesterol, begins to accumulate in the walls of the arteries, increasing how hard your circulatory system has to work and decreasing its efficiency.
In addition to eating a healthy diet and exercising, a way around all this is to maintain a healthy weight, reduce the amount of sodium in your diet, and reduce stress.
Finally, Dr. Haythe urges parents to instill these habits in their kids—before unhealthy behaviors set in.
“Lead by example,” she says. “Kids who see their parents exercise and eat healthy are more likely to follow.”
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